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January 22, 2014

Outside the Box: Fundamental tenets of journalism also apply to creating a good life

Writer’s note: I am a journalist in academia, a woman who has traveled among many cultures. I live outside the box and I like it — and I want to share my perspective with you every Thursday.

In my first semester at Allegheny, I explained the fundamental tenets and practices of journalism. I stressed that fairness and accuracy in reporting, writing and photography are essential. Hitting the deadline is imperative. I told students that a misspelled name, a factual error or a late story or photograph would result in a zero.

I was clear that I’d been clear, yet students didn’t turn in their first assignments on time.

One student told me after class that his high school teacher had let him turn in his work late. He assured me that he’d been always been able to charm her into getting an extension. I told him that we weren’t in high school and I certainly wasn’t that teacher.

I was also told a number of times how other professors routinely give students extra time to complete their work. Again, that explanation has no bearing on our class. Journalism is deadline-driven.

I looked for ways to better communicate the importance of the rules I’d outlined.

I created a document that I now hand out the first week of class. We discuss the document and find examples of the principles. I ask the students to sign it to signify that they’ve read, understood and agree to the principles.

An Understanding: four crucial principles/actions to succeed in this class (and in life)

Pay attention to details


A journalist notices details. Observation is a key skill. Accuracy is imperative. If you spell a name incorrectly or get a fact wrong, you will earn a zero for that assignment.

I ask the students if they’ve ever had their name misspelled in a newspaper article. Most have. I ask them how it made them feel. I tell them to remember that feeling.

Follow instructions

Read assignments and directions completely and follow them. If you don’t, you will lose points.

This practice seems simple. And some directions are simple: put your name on your paper; double-space your copy. In class, you lose points if you fail to follow instructions. In life, there are situations where you could miss an opportunity — to witness your friend’s wedding, to meet your mother at the airport. In some circumstances, if you fail to follow instructions, you risk your life.

Show up

Physically, emotionally, mentally. Be present. Be on time. If you are late, your assignment is late; and, you will earn a zero for that assignment.

It’s human nature to get distracted, to sit in class and think about the last class or the next class. Or lunch. Or a fight with parents. Or the grade on an exam.

I remind students that if they’re going to come to class, it’s best to bring their energy and focus to the class, to put their minds and hearts in play. I tell the story of a couple I saw in a restaurant. The man talked on his cellphone throughout their entire meal. From first course through dessert, the woman ate in silence, alone, with the man right across from her. He was there but he didn’t show up.

Hit your deadlines

If you have an appointment with a source for an interview, be on time. You garner and earn respect by being professional. If you have a story due, turn it in on time. If you don’t hit your deadline, you will earn a zero for that assignment.

If you miss your deadline in the news biz, you won’t have your work published. You won’t have a job for long, either.

I love the competitiveness of a hitting a deadline. Sometimes I’m competing with myself. Sometimes I’m competing against fellow journalists. The first one to file gets the double-truck in Paris Match or the front-page photo in The New York Times.

At this very moment, I’m struggling to hit my 10 p.m. Tuesday deadline. I made choices that put me in this tight spot. I attended the opening of the Marcellus Shale Documentary Project in the gallery on campus from 8 to 9 p.m. I wanted to support my colleagues in the art department — and set an example for the students I’d encouraged to attend the opening.

In fact, I started this column to set an example for the student journalists in our classes and on the staff of The Campus, the college newspaper. It’s one thing to put words on paper and share them at the start of each semester. It’s another thing to put them into practice.

I believe it’s important to walk the talk.

At the end of the document, I invite the students to enjoy the class, the challenges and the collaboration with their fellow students.

I remind them to have some fun. And hit their deadlines.

Cheryl Hatch is a writer, photojournalist and visiting assistant professor of journalism in the public interest at Allegheny College.

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